By Julia Di Simone
Willamette’s newest Bearcat team is here: women’s lacrosse. The high-intensity sport first played by Indigenous peoples of the Americas will be featured on our campus this upcoming academic year. Unlike club teams of Willamette’s past, the newly established team is set to compete at the NCAA Division III level in the Spring of 2019. As the newest addition to Willamette Athletics, women’s lacrosse will grow the sport on the west coast and expand opportunities for current students looking to get involved.
Junior Kara Phillips played softball for thirteen years before transitioning to lacrosse this past fall. Despite never having played lacrosse before, Phillips relishes the opportunity to learn the position of goalie, which she will take on as the team transitions to varsity next year. “It’s been exciting, and a little bit intimidating because I’ve never played before,” Phillips shares, “But it was good getting out of that comfort zone and challenging myself.” Students new to lacrosse will make this transition under the guidance of Head Coach Sarah Lautenbach, who herself didn’t plan on playing lacrosse in college, yet excelled on Old Dominion University’s Division I team as a walk-on.
“Lacrosse translates well to anyone who has been an athlete or wants to continue playing at a more competitive level,” says Lautenbach. Together with Assistant Coach Annie Longtain, Lautenbach is building Willamette lacrosse’s foundation with students who are experienced at the sport as well as walk-ons.
Athletic Director Rob Passage commends Lautenbach on her patience and ability to support athletes as they grow. Phillips agrees, remarking that Coaches Lautenbach and Longtain “are always so nice. They’re so approachable and super understanding that I’m a super beginner and a few of us are super beginners. They’re willing to take it slow, break things down and really teach and be patient. I’ve enjoyed that a lot.”
Beyond coaching Phillips to develop her skills at lacrosse, Lautenbach has served as not only a coach, but a mentor. Phillips recalls, “I had some personal issues come up and she just sat and talked with me and that’s something I really appreciate. Not everyone is ready to take on both the coaching of the player and handling the human.” Lautenbach recognizes that this team of women student-athletes are building a legacy here at Willamette. “These girls get to be the first. It’s really a very unique opportunity to pass down a tradition. It’s incredible especially for female students to have that opportunity,” Lautenbach reflects.
The fight to expand opportunities in women’s varsity athletics is sorely needed at a university where women make up the majority of undergraduate students but the minority of varsity student-athletes. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s (USDE) 2016 – 2017 Equity in Athletics data analysis, Willamette reported that 224 men and 130 women participated on at least one varsity team as undergraduates. For perspective, Willamette CLA reported to the USDE an enrollment of 1,054 women and 796 men. Additionally, WU reported spending $50,858 on recruitment for men’s teams, but only $14,418 for their women’s teams.
Women student-athletes deserve just as many opportunities to play, just as much investment in recruiting and just as well-maintained of facilities as their male counterparts. Willamette’s former women’s rowing team took up the mantle of fighting for equality within Willamette Athletics following its dismantling in 2016. Fourteen of the team’s former athletes, including myself, brought a Title IX suit against the University, the result of which was a settlement out of court between the two parties. Willamette Athletics agreed to establish women’s lacrosse as a club sport and transition it to a varsity team by Spring 2019 and to add women’s triathlon in the Fall of 2021. The full consent decree of Fawcett et al v. Willamette can be accessed from the homepage savewucrew.webs.com.
Willamette’s commitment to establish two new women’s varsity sports is an important step towards providing equal opportunities for women in athletics. Director Passage remarks, “It’s incredibly exciting anytime you can add a sport. Especially a sport for our women athletes.” As mentioned earlier, Passage reports that WU Athletics is “in the beginning stages of starting triathlon, and we’ll be applying for a grant through USA Triathlon to help us fund that. I’ve already been contacted by several folks in the area who are excited about helping us coach. And at the same time, we’re constantly taking a look at the possibility of adding other sports.” To have your interests in new athletics opportunities heard by Willamette Athletics, fill out the athletics interest survey at wubearcats.com/information/titleix/index.